Consider the pig and the ethics of meat-eating

It’s time that we closely examine what we eat. We must begin to recognize that the food on our plate has greater implications, not only for our bodies, but also for subsequent generations. So often, in a world that doesn’t commune with the Earth or seem to depend on local businesses like butcher shops and bakeries anymore, we forget that our food has come from somewhere rather than having simply materialized and that it has been sculpted, really, by many hands.

Swarthmore’s student-run Good Food group — an organization which also oversees the modest but well-kept garden on campus — has staked its existence on raising awareness about where food comes from and what, exactly, goes into it, in terms of nutrients and resources but also sweat, blood. The group’s annual “Meat Day,” which was held last Saturday in the Scheuer room, is a vital event on Swarthmore’s campus because it allows members of the community to sit down together and not only share a meal (in the form of a glistening pig roast), but also discuss the ethical, economical and nutritional implications of eating meat — dimensions that are sometimes woefully overlooked as one gnoshes a burger or tucks into their Thanksgiving day dinner.

At this year’s “Meat Day,” there was a panel comprised of Ed Mills, a professor of meat science from Penn State University; Theresa Klinger, who supplied the pig for this year’s roast and who, along with her husband, runs Kli-vey Farms in Buckhorn, PA; Ariyeh Miller, the owner and operator of 1732 Meats in Landsdowne, PA; and Sarah Scheub ’12, a recent alum and young farmer. The panel was moderated by Iz Newlin ’14. All told, the group provided insightful commentary while fielding an array of questions from the large group of students in attendance (the Scheuer room, I was encouraged to see, was totally packed). And though I came away largely unconvinced as to the benefits of eating meat, there’s no question that any sort of dialogue that forces us to confront the realities of choosing to eat a certain way, be it carnivorously or otherwise, is a good thing — an essential thing, in fact.

In terms of the panelists themselves, I was somewhat intrigued by Mills’ point that meat can — and does — have the potential to improve certain diets. In particular, Mills cited communities in Kenya whose overall health was benefitted from eating meat, saying that animal protein aids in brain development in a way that the same quantity of plant protein, apparently, cannot match, which might give us slight pause in terms of doing away with all meat outright.

Meanwhile, Klinger and Miller both spoke passionately, and I think more persuasively, about healthy livestock and the meat they yield. It’s certainly true that the difference between an egg, say, that has come from a pasture-raised chicken who is free to engage with its environment and forage to its content and an egg that has come from an anemic, sequestered one is truly night and day — and the same goes for pork and beef products. There’s something about the deep orange, sunset hue of a healthy yoke or the nutty flavor of acorn-fed pork. These things just seem to be in concert with the way the world ought to be. They seem fundamentally right, even to a non-meat eater.

I was less satisfied, though, when it came to the issue of the environmental impact of eating meat, a crucial topic which I felt was largely glossed over by the guest speakers. I was honestly annoyed by Mills, whose presence on the panel was invaluable, but who, despite his background in hard science, did not say when pressed that Americans eat too much meat. The fact is, we do. It’s another component of our rabid, unchecked consumerism. Mills mentioned other comparable nations in Europe and Asia whose industrialization correlated with greater levels of meat consumption. But this seems to be a non-point which merely drives home the extent of the problem. Meat is an expensive commodity — there’s a reason those Kenyan villagers don’t eat it very often — and with increased affluence comes the resources and desire to produce, buy and consume costlier goods. But meat’s high “price” transcends literal currency and extends to its environmental expense which is formidable, and quite frankly, makes its consumption unethical.

At a time when the frequency of severe weather and the degradation of environment is happening literally before our eyes, Mills’ noncommittal answer seemed shortsighted and culturally influenced, indicative as it was of our first-world society’s fatal ambivalence.

Perhaps equally upsetting was the panel’s general apprehension over discussing the gory details of the act of killing itself. When asked point-blank about how the animal was slaughtered, Klinger initially balked until she managed to get around to saying that its jugular was severed (the process, known as exsanguination, is standard). Farmers, and especially consumers, must own, and become intimately familiar with, the tumultuous act of taking a life as a prerequisite for selling and eating meat. I agreed with Sheub and Mills when they said that everyone who eats meat should experience depriving a creature of its life. If you can’t face that stark reality in all of its morbidity, who are you to partake of what it yields?

The fact is that when you eat meat, a life was sacrificed for your sustenance. The question then becomes, is that fact petty or profound? I’ve killed a chicken, and even though they’re considered to be the most primitive farm animal, I found myself physically affected by the act. I became dizzy and needed to step away afterwards. Klinger also admitted that after slaughter days, she loses her appetite for meat. If we could wholly grasp what it means to take life, would we be so keen to fill our stomachs?

At the end of the day, however, it must be said that eating meat occasionally is not inherently bad. It can be done right, providing it is regarded as what it is — a luxury and a fragment of a once-living being. For these reasons, meat is a special thing and it should only be eaten if special people raised it in a special place, as the Klinger family does at Kil-vey Farms.

Mills was right when he said that ultimately, the decision to consume meat is one that has to be made on an individual basis. This is because, really, it is a deeply personal decision to consume meat, one that harkens all the way back to the primal interplay between human-animals-nature by enacting the beyond-intimate relationship of killer and killed. This is what Miller was talking about when he spoke movingly of “honoring life.” It’s about using every part of the animal and understanding each aspect of its development — from “farm to table” — as a means of acknowledging the gift of sacrifice and the environmental price of its luxury. It’s exactly that sort of vital awareness that “Meat Day” succeeds in raising, providing we take note.

The Phoenix